BOGOTA, Colombia — In a blow to Colombia’s political class, a former leftist rebel and a populist businessman took the top two spots in the country’s presidential election on Sunday and headed to a runoff in June .
Left-wing senator Gustavo Petro led the field of six candidates with just over 40% of the vote, while independent real estate magnate Rodolfo Hernández finished second with more than 28%, authorities said on Sunday evening. elections.
A candidate needed 50% of the total vote to win the contest held in a polarized environment and growing discontent with rising inequality and inflation.
Regardless of who wins on June 19, the South American country long ruled by conservatives or moderates will see a sea change in presidential politics.
Petro has promised to make major adjustments to the economy, including tax reform, and to change the way Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. Hernández, whose place in the run-off came as a surprise, has few ties to political parties and promises to cut wasteful government spending and offer rewards to people who speak out against corrupt officials.
As for the areas where Hernández won in some of the more traditional departments of the heartland, “the rejection of the status quo, even among many of the most conservative Colombians…really shows a distaste for the traditional workings of politics Colombian,” said Adam Isacson. , Colombia specialist in the Washington Office’s think tank on Latin America.
Petro’s main rival for most of the campaign was Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellin who was considered the continuity candidate and ran on a platform of business-friendly economic growth. But Hernández has started to climb sharply in recent polls ahead of the election.
There have been a series of left-wing political victories in Latin America as people seek change at a time of dissatisfaction with the economic situation. Chile, Peru and Honduras have elected leftist presidents in 2021, and in Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election. Mexico elected a leftist president in 2018.
“The main problem in the country is the inequality of conditions, the work is not well paid,” said Jenny Bello, who sold coffee near a long line of voters under typical cloudy skies. capital Bogota. She had to resort to informal selling after months without work due to the pandemic.
It was the second presidential election held since the government in 2016 signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC for its initials in Spanish. But the divisive deal was not a main issue during the campaign, which focused on poverty, inflation and other challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.
This is Petro’s third attempt to become president. He was beaten in 2018 by Iván Duque, who was not eligible for re-election.
“What is in dispute today is change. The political parties allied to the government of Duque, his political project, have been defeated in Colombia,” Petro told supporters as they celebrated at his headquarters. countryside in Bogotá. “Colombia’s total vote sends this message to the world: a period is ending; an era is ending.”
A victory for Petro would usher in a new political era in a country that has long marginalized the left due to its perceived association with the country’s armed conflict. He was once a rebel in the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being imprisoned for his involvement with the group.
“The 2016 peace accords really broke the link between left-wing politics and guerrillas/terrorists,” Isacson said. “I think people suddenly realized they could be very critical of the existing system without being portrayed as guerrillas.”
But as a sign of resistance to a leftist government, Gutierrez endorsed Hernández shortly after being kicked out of the runoff.
“Knowing that our position is decisive for the future of Colombia, we made a decision…we don’t want to lose the country,” Gutierrez said, adding that he would support Hernández because he doesn’t want to put Colombia “at risk.”
Petro has promised to make major adjustments to the economy, including tax reform, as well as changes to how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups.
Hernández, the former mayor of the north-central city of Bucaramanga, surged in recent polls by promising to “cleanse” the country of corruption and donate his salary.
“Now we are entering the second period, and these next few days will be decisive in determining the future of the country,” Hernández said in a livestream after early results showed he had qualified for the second round. He said he remained firm on his commitment to ending “corruption as a system of government”.
A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month found that 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of Duque. A poll conducted last year by Gallup found that 60% of respondents struggled to get by on their income.
The pandemic has set back the country’s poverty alleviation efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that 39% of Colombia’s 51.6 million people lived on less than $89 a month last year, a slight improvement from 42.5% in 2020.
Inflation hit its highest level in two decades last month. The Duque administration said April’s 9.2% rate was part of a global inflationary phenomenon, but the argument did nothing to tame discontent over rising food prices.
“Voting is about changing the country and I think that responsibility lies a lot with young people who want to achieve standards that allow us to have a decent life,” said Juan David González, 28, who voted for the second time. in a presidential election.
In addition to economic challenges, the next Colombian president will also have to deal with a complex security issue and corruption, which is a major concern for voters.
The Red Cross concluded last year that Colombia had reached its highest level of violence in five years. Although the peace agreement with the FARC has been implemented, the territories and drug trafficking routes they once controlled are contested between other armed groups such as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a guerrilla founded in the 1960s, FARC dissidents and the Gulf Clan Cartel.
Duque’s successor will have to decide whether or not to resume peace talks with the ELN, which he suspended in 2019 after an attack killed more than 20 people.
“Corruption in state entities is the country’s main problem,” Edgar González said after voting in Bogotá. “…A very big change is taking place in the politics of the country and if we all practice the law, we will achieve this change.”